“There is of course an affinity between people and places,” Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings writes in Cross Creek (1942). When she first arrived at Cross Creek, deep in Florida’s Ocala National Forest, in 1928, Rawlings seemed an unlikely candidate to fit into the frontier landscape that existed in Florida at the time. She was a sophisticated career woman, an educated and accomplished journalist from Rochester, New York, with little knowledge of the outdoors. The inhabitants of her new home, on the other hand, were rural natives who lived close to the earth and close to natural disasters. Rawlings discovered in their hard lives elements of beauty and meaning that she incorporated into her greatest work, The Yearling. The publication of this book in 1938 brought Rawlings the Pulitzer Prize and worldwide recognition as a great original talent.
The affinity between people and places in The Yearling is most clearly seen in Penny Baxter, who has chosen to live on Baxter’s Island because of its isolation. Shunning city life, which makes “intrusions on the individual spirit,” Penny moves to the Florida scrub because the “wild animals seemed less predatory to him than the people he had known.” He learns to live in harmony with nature and to subsist on what his land has to offer. The challenge is great because Baxter’s Island is “ringed with hunger.” Penny’s struggles to survive made him Rawlings’s favorite character. In an interview that appeared in the Christian Science Monitor in 1940, Rawlings explained: Penny expresses my own philosophy—that life knocks a person down; and he gets up, and it knocks him down again. And that the only strong, manly thing for a man to do when he’s down is to take the experience calmly and go on—that is, get up and go at it again.
Penny tries to pass on this philosophy to Jody, who, as a child at the beginning of the story, is interested only in the flutter mill. Jody’s desperate desire to domesticate Flag shows how immature and out of harmony with nature he is. By attempting to make a pet out of an animal that is an important part of the Baxters’ food supply, Jody is bound for disaster. Second, Jody’s passionate love for Flag highlights how lonely he is after Fodder-Wing’s death: “Flag had eased a loneliness that had harassed him in the very heart of his family.” Penny’s offhand remark to Jody regarding Flag, “You’re a pair o’ yearlin’s,” illustrates how Flag and Jody have merged by the end of the narrative. Jody’s childish—though human—attachment to Flag must end so that Jody may move on to the next stage of his development toward independent, strong adulthood. Both boy and fawn engage in prankish behavior that threatens the precarious survival of the family. Therefore, Flag’s death is a grim necessity.
When Jody runs away from home after Flag has been shot, he experiences for himself the “terrifying” power of hunger: “It had a great maw to envelop him and claws that raked across his vitals.” Suddenly, he understands his father’s lessons in survival. Even though he knows that he will be “lonely all his life,” he realizes that this truth is a “man’s share,” and he can continue.
Jody’s evolution toward adulthood is accomplished in great circular journeys that take him away from the security and warmth of his center, Baxter’s Island, and into the fierce outer world. His quest is mythic in nature, reinforced by the structure of the book, which encompasses the passing of one year. The book begins and ends in April, the time of renewal. Jody is accompanied by spirits in his journey through the dark woods: the memories of Spaniards who had once roamed afield, Fodder-Wing and his love for all living things, and, finally, the dream of Flag—“a boy and a yearling ran side by side, and were gone forever.”
Rawlings related that the inspiration for the novel came from her poignant awareness of the passing of innocent youth into adulthood. She...
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